Saturday, March 28, 2020

Life in Isolation, Report #1

Welp, we're on day 3 of national lockdown. NZ is up to 451 cases. The majority of them are still associated with overseas travel, but a few "clusters" of transmission have happened within NZ. One such cluster was an international cattle conference that took place in Queenstown 2 weeks ago; several infected people from the conference then attended Wanaka's agricultural & pastoral show, one of the biggest local events of the year, which had a crowd of 40,000. (Doh!)

So far only a dozen people are in hospital, but that's certain to change. The government's best modeling indicates we'll reach several thousand cases in the next week or two. After that, if the lockdown is working to stop community transmission, we'll hopefully start seeing a decrease.

Boy do we all hope for that. This has led to some community arguments over what is and isn't allowed in lockdown. What is the definition of "going out for exercise" in a town full of climbers, marathon runners, mountaineers, and other outdoor enthusiasts? The local coast guard has asked people not to kayak and boat on the lake, to spare volunteers from having to mount rescues in case of trouble. But what about mountain biking the multitude of trails accessed from town? Or driving to more remote but still "local" trailheads? Or surfing the Hawea wave? The debate rages in local Facebook groups, with some arguing we should all stick to neighborhood walks, others insisting mental health is important, and so long as distancing is kept, other activities should be fair game.

Our household is playing it safe and keeping to short walks down to the lakeshore. Well, plus a lot of time bouncing on our backyard trampoline, and occasional games in the empty lot next door.

For my own sanity, I worked out a daily school schedule for my son, and we've settled into a reasonable routine.

We get up, have breakfast, I shower and do a 20-30min yoga workout using free youtube videos. (I just finished "30 days of Yoga with Adriene", which I really liked, so now I'm on to another 31-day set of her videos called Revolution. I can't recommend these enough. Adriene is a terrific instructor, very practical/pragmatic with a nice sense of humor, and she's great at explaining different options for beginner/intermediate/expert in each pose. For me it's been a total sanity saver.)

9am: My husband heads into his home office for work. (His company has always worked remotely, so his routine hasn't really changed!) For me and the kiddo, the "school day" starts. From 9-10, my son works on a range of activities assigned by his classroom teacher. His school has done a spectacular job of setting up tons of online learning, for which I am tremendously grateful. While the kiddo works, I write.

10am: Free time, with the caveat of no screens. I play with him if he wants.

11am: The kiddo does another block of schoolwork, and I work on my algorithm project.

12pm: Lunchtime! And chores.

1pm: Music lesson: I'm teaching him piano, since that's the instrument I play best. I wish I had been smart enough to buy some beginner piano books before the lockdown, but oh well. Instead I print off beginner exercises and music I find online.

1:30pm: Japanese lesson! The kiddo and I decided to learn Japanese together, in hopes we can visit Japan someday post-pandemic. Our Kiwi friends tell us the powder and tree skiing there are epic. We're using Rocket Japanese, which I like so far. We have a lot of fun trying to beat each other's scores on the various games & quizzes.

2pm: "Physical education"...aka, get active for an hour. We trampoline, practice cricket bowling, run sprints, dance to music, whatever the kiddo wants to do that is active.

3pm: School day is done, now the kiddo gets screen time. He plays video games and Skypes with his friends or watches favorite shows. I catch up on news, email friends, do more chores (we are still trying to stain the outside of the house!).

530pm: My husband's usually done with work, so we make dinner and then go for a family walk to the lake, or watch a movie together, or something family-oriented.

Evening on the lakeshore

All good so far, but the lockdown is yet young. I keep thinking about how hard it must be for parents of very young children or rebellious teenagers, especially if both parents are also trying to work from home. It's been a touch exhausting trying to keep my energetic 11 year old from climbing the walls, and replacing all his in-person social interaction; yet I know I'm lucky compared to so many others. Hugs to everyone out there struggling to make it through another day.

This will all be worth it if NZ can stop this virus. In my dreams, the lockdown works and thousands of lives are saved. Domestic restrictions get lifted after a month or so, and within NZ we can return to socializing and domestic travel and tramping/climbing/kayaking/etc, even if our borders have to stay closed to stop new cases. This is perhaps too optimistic a dream, but hey. Hope is a nice thing to have.

In the meantime, for anyone looking for distraction, I've got books to recommend. I've been re-reading Sangu Mandanna's A Spark of White Fire, an engaging YA space opera that I've mentioned here before, in preparation for reading the sequel, A House of Rage and Sorrow. The first book definitely holds up the second time through; I'm just as captivated as I was before, and really looking forward to seeing how the story continues. If you want to escape the world for a while, definitely try this SF adventure with sentient space ships and difficult family relationships plus magic and meddling gods.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Heading into Lockdown

Over the weekend, COVID-19 case numbers in NZ increased to 102, and the first dreaded signs of community transmission appeared in Auckland and Wairarapa. To my huge relief, the government was swift to act. In an address to the nation yesterday, PM Jacinda Ardern raised the nation's immediate alert level to 3, with the understanding that over the next 48 hours the country will prepare to go into full level 4 lockdown (as of midnight Wednesday, NZ time).

Lockdown means all schools closed, all businesses closed except for health services, pharmacies, supermarkets, supply chain, police & vital govt services. We are all to stay home, no travel outside local area, no contact with anyone outside our households. If we go outside we must maintain 2m distance from anyone else. If needed, this will be enforced by police & military. The government will prohibit rent increases and evictions, work with banks to provide mortgage relief, and ensure basic income for all Kiwis. We will remain in lockdown for at least 4 weeks.

This is absolutely New Zealand's best and only hope of preventing the swamping of the health system and the resultant huge numbers of deaths. Will it work? Oh goodness I hope so, but only time will tell.

It's a little chaotic right now, as people rush to prepare. Despite the calls to "shop normally", supermarkets in bigger cities are apparently madhouses. Tourists who haven't yet left the country may not be able to get out in time, as many flights are cancelled. Kiwis who'd been traveling in different areas of the country are racing to get home, a process complicated by the ferries between North and South Islands having limited space.

But everyone agrees this is necessary. My eyes welled up when I saw the statement of support from NZ's main opposing political party, the more conservative National party. They have suspended all campaigning and expressed full confidence in the PM's actions, despite the severe economic consequences of a full lockdown. “We support any measures that will protect the health and safety of New Zealanders...we will work in a supportive and constructive way with the Government in the interests of bringing New Zealand through this crisis together."

Those of you in America will understand why I nearly wept upon reading that. Just...I can't even imagine seeing a similar headline in the US, and that both terrifies me and breaks my heart. The deep divisions of American society are about to quite literally kill people. Especially the "alternate reality" bubble that so many Americans have complacently built around themselves; the one in which the president is super-competent and the virus over-blown. I want to scream when I think of the months wasted, the insistent denials of the virus's severity, the eagerness to prioritize profit over people's lives, so that even now, too many people don't take self-isolation seriously.

I keep thinking of the line from HBO's Chernobyl miniseries, "Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth; sooner or later, that debt is paid."

In America, the debt is coming due. I fear it will cost far more lives than Chernobyl.

Yet I cling to hope. Regardless of government, each of us has some power to affect the virus's spread. When my husband and son and I went for a walk last night, we and the other families we saw called cheerful greetings from a good long distance and conscientiously steered well clear of each other. I've been messaging the parents of my son's friends to set up virtual playtime options. Local Facebook groups are filled with people offering whatever help is needed for those alone or requiring shopping assistance. All this is in no way unique to New Zealand, I am sure. Our actions are our own best hope, regardless of country.

So to everyone out there, wherever you live, I pray you stay healthy and safe. And please, so long as the virus is not contained, stay isolated.

It's okay to go outside if there's nobody else around

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Alert Level 2

In the 2 days since my last post, NZ is up to 52 cases of COVID-19. Two of them aren't related to overseas travel: we now have the dreaded first sign of community spread. NZ's PM addressed the nation today to unveil a 4-level alert system; we're currently at level 2. This means schools stay open, but every adult who can work remotely should start doing so. We're asked to stop all non-essential domestic travel, and those people in high risk groups (elderly, immunocompromised, underlying conditions), should limit contacts by staying at home.

As I watched the PM's announcement, my son was downstairs playing with a friend. Another little friend is supposed to come over tomorrow, and I already agonize: should I cancel that? It's probably safest to do so. Yet so long as my son's school remains open, he's exposed to some risk anyway, and this may be one of his last chances to enjoy ordinary playtime. I don't think we have long before the alert level rises and we all go into true isolation, for who knows how long. 

Looking at social media posts from friends all around the world, I can't help but recall the parts in Stephen King's masterwork of viral apocalypse The Stand where characters mourn the world that was. All the simple conveniences of life, but most of all the shared rituals of community, from baseball games and summer fireworks to crowded movie theaters. We're not anywhere near as bad off as survivors in The Stand, of course. Our favorite acts of community aren't forever gone for us, just gone for a while. We still have the internet to keep us together and build new rituals of connection despite physical isolation. But it's still a time to mourn, because when we come out of this crucible, the whole world will be different in ways we're not yet sure of. 

PM Jacinda Ardern finished her speech to the nation by calling on people to "be strong; be kind." Oh, how I hope we can live up to that. (For my part, I'm registering with the local volunteer network which will organize help for local community members.) 

In the meantime, if you're stuck at home and looking for a read that celebrates kindness and friendship in difficult times, I've got a rec for you:

Emma Bull's Finder is old-school elfpunk urban fantasy, a murder mystery set in a town straddling the magical border between human and elven lands. The protagonist, Orient, is a human runaway with a psychic knack for finding things. His best friend is an elven woman named Tick Tick who's a talented mechanic. When Orient is forced into helping the local police solve a string of murders, Tick Tick and his other friends aren't going to let him face trouble alone. Bull's typical excellence with character work makes the story really shine. Fair warning, it does involve a deadly plague and contains a heartbreaking death scene, so if you don't want that reminder of reality in your reads right now, keep it for another time. Me, I plan to curl up with it tonight. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Calm before the storm

I just read over the last post I made here, way back at the beginning of the year, and wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. So much for my attempted optimism about 2020, eh? A few days after Jan 1, I remember reading a BBC article about a new virus hospitalizing people in China. It was easy to dismiss beneath the deluge of terrible news about the bushfires in Australia, and the threat of war between the U.S. and Iran. I remember thinking, Oh gosh, what now--as if we need a plague on top of everything else! But even at worst, I assumed a "plague" meant something like SARS or H1N1. Sad for everyone affected, but society as a whole would plow on as normal.

Ha. Well. Here we are, in the kind of epidemic straight out of a disaster movie. New Zealand is not so badly affected yet. (Yet.) Our first confirmed case wasn't until Feb 28, and on Mar 14, when we still had only 6 cases, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ordered that everyone, residents and visitors alike, arriving into New Zealand has to self-isolate for 14 days. It's getting a lot harder to reach NZ at all, with Air NZ cutting way back on flights, and Qantas cancelling overseas operations entirely.

Today, March 19th, NZ is up to 28 cases, all of them still associated with overseas travel. No evidence yet of community spread...although I worry that is because NZ is only now rolling out more widespread testing. Until a few days ago, to get tested you needed to have both symptoms and a history of overseas travel (or close contact with someone who'd traveled from overseas). Given COVID-19's long incubation, slow progression of symptoms even in critical cases, and penchant for silent spreading in a community, I feared NZ's Ministry of Health was too complacent in their assumptions.

I guess we'll soon see. Aside from my qualms about their testing policy, I think Ardern and her government are doing a pretty damn spectacular job of handling the situation. They've been clear and honest from the start about the level of threat, the precautions people should take, and the expected impacts to the country. More importantly, they haven't been afraid to take action, even when the economic cost is stark. NZ's economy, particularly on the South Island, is heavily dependent on tourism. The 14-day self-isolation rule for incoming travelers essentially killed that entire sector. But as Ardern said, "I make no apologies"; she's putting the health and lives of New Zealanders as her highest priority.

Immediately after the order, the government rolled out a massive economic response package worth 4% of the GDP, providing wage subsidies, tax relief, and other measures to protect Kiwi jobs and help those who are unemployed or retired. I've also been hugely relieved to see the government has been working hard all this time to secure ventilators and prepare hospitals for the expected rise in cases. Thank God for competent government. It makes me mad and sad and horrified all at the same time that the US government, given just as much warning, has done almost nothing to prepare.

But I know for NZ the true test is yet to come. It's been surreal watching posts from friends in the US and Europe and Australia: the rising dismay, the empty store shelves, the lost jobs, the lockdown orders. Right now, in Wanaka life continues more or less as normal, except with a lot fewer tourists. Schools and businesses and restaurants are all open. When I passed our neighborhood cafe this morning, all the tables were full. There was a brief run on toilet paper and paper towels a few days ago, when one COVID-19 case was diagnosed in nearby Queenstown. But when I went shopping today, the Wanaka supermarket was once again well stocked:

Look at all that precious white gold! Complete with discreet little signs saying customers are limited to buying 3 packs.
Plenty of meat to go around. Only thing you can't find is hand sanitizer.

I know this happy state of affairs won't last. When my son came home from school today, he told me they spent much of the day preparing for remote learning in the event of a shutdown. The rumor mill claims the PM is poised to initiate a full lockdown at the first sign of community spread, or maybe even before. I'm guessing that's when the panic shoppers will truly panic.

On a personal level, we're about as ready as we can be. NZ is earthquake country, so we'd long since started building up a stash of nonperishable food and supplies. We bought a chest freezer, and ever since the first reports of total lockdown came out of China back in January, I've been buying a little bit extra every time I go to the store. My husband already works remotely, as do I, so no change there. My son is old enough he'll be pretty easy to homeschool and entertain; my heart goes out to parents stuck in their homes indefinitely with toddlers. Talk about the seventh circle of hell.

Preparations don't help anxiety, though. I've got plenty of family and friends in high risk groups. I worry about who will survive, and what our future will look like, as countries struggle to manage the long-term impacts. I hope desperately for a treatment or vaccine that will halt the pandemic and spare the world from the worst effects. I'm trying to continue progress on my writing and other projects, and not spend half my day refreshing news sites. (Boy is that hard, when the news comes in fast and furious).

Right now in Wanaka it feels like that last eerie calm before the storm. Best wishes to all of you overseas who are already feeling the impact; may we all come out the other side.

My son enjoying some calm on his school camp last week in the Catlins (part of the rugged, remote southern coast of NZ)